England prove northern mettle

 

Time will tell just how serious a dent England have made in world rugby's old order. Still, no previous English side has ever strung together four straight wins against southern hemisphere opponents, or revealed as many layers of steely determination as Clive Woodward's team have done in the past fortnight.

This was a genuine, hard-nosed Test win straight out of the time-honoured Springbok manual, with above-average quantities of blood spilt by both sides, yet worryingly for their Six Nations rivals, England's scars will fade a lot more quickly than the self-belief which a trio of victories over Australia, Argentina and South Africa has encouraged.

Richard Hill and Neil Back between them required some 20 stitches, in circumstances still being assessed by the Welsh match commissioner Russell Howells last night.

Unless he can locate some new angle, though, it will be hard to prove if a Springbok knee did explode through a ruck to catch the half-crouched Hill, still less whether it was intentional. "It was a fairly tough game, but nothing out of the ordinary," said Martin Johnson.

Few, though, can dispute that Woodward's squad are now, to quote South Africa's coach Harry Viljoen, "a really well-organised unit, one of the best in world rugby." On a pitch which had been rolled, shaved and squeezed into a sheet of soggy green plasticine, they again moulded a winning game around their pack and Jonny Wilkinson's boot, giving their best display since that June day in Bloemfontein.

And there was even a gem of an English try which owed nothing to a kind bounce or a video referee's nod. Wilkinson, already bandaged having picked up a gash over the eye at the first ruck, took the ball moving left in the 34th minute and the Springbok defence shuffled across in readiness for another bout of ritual sandbagging. Instead, they were split wide open by Will Greenwood's cleverly crafted angle and Wilkinson's perfectly timed pass, and the peroxide Harlequin stepped smartly outside Andre Vos to touch down the first try by an English centre since the first week of February.

Wilkinson had been out, as usual, at 9 a.m. in the grounds of the team hotel, grooving a kicking technique which the Springboks now know by heart. A total of 47 points in two games against the Boks has lifted the 21-year-old's aggregate to 327 in 23 Tests and only his club boss Rob Andrew, with 396, has now scored more for England. Having kicked six penalties out of six, and converted Greenwood's try, no one could believe it when a late drop goal attempt drifted wide.

By then South Africa had paid for too many first-half mistakes, although Hill's insertion of his body between turf and ball when Percy Montgomery knifed his way to the line from Breyton Paulse's pass was crucial, too. The Boks also made a promising start to the second-half, with Braam van Straaten catching the English defence napping following a quick tap to score in the left corner, but any headway they made against the home pack was seldom sustained.

If England could have done without the late body check by Phil Greening on Joost van der Westhuizen which allowed the Boks back to 22-17 with eight minutes left, they are now infinitely more composed under pressure than at last year's World Cup, let alone Murrayfield in April. "I'm very lucky to be involved with a pack like that," said Andy Robinson, the coach whose own desire for winning has spread like a virus through his squad. "But there's lots for us to do. If you stand still in sport you'll get beaten next time."

Viljoen, for one, is not convinced the Red Sea will automatically part when England next take the field, in Cardiff on February 3rd. "Wales are as good as England, if you want my honest opinion," he murmured.

England: Perry; Cohen, Tindall, Greenwood (Healey, 80min), Luger (Balshaw, h-t); Wilkinson, Dawson; Leonard, Greening, White (Vickery, h-t), Johnson (capt), Grewcock, Hill, Back, Dallaglio.

South Africa: Mulder, Terblanche; Van Straaten, Van der Westhuizen (Van Zyl, 75); Kempson, Smit, Meyer (Le Roux, 61), Van den Berg (A J Venter, 59; Brosnihan, 80), Andrews, Krige, A Venter, Vos (capt).

Referee: D McHugh (Irl).